Third Level Drama Courses After CAO 2013 or – Why We Need a National Campaign for the Arts (Degree)

Yesterday, over 50,000 Leaving Cert students were offered college places for the year ahead.

As someone who runs two undergraduate drama courses, I was keen to find out what the points for admission for this year would be – and to see how Drama is faring throughout the island, at a time when Arts courses generally appear to be declining in popularity.

In Galway, the outcome for Drama is very positive. In our Drama degree course (GY118) the points are unchanged from last year on 450, while in our BA Connect degree (GY115, an option whereby students can get a degree in two ‘ordinary’ subjects like English and French, but still do some Drama in their spare time), the points dropped slightly, from 410 to 400. So we can look forward to being able to welcome 30-40 new Drama students to Galway next month, and that’s (genuinely) exciting.

Around the country things seem similarly positive.  Drama at Cork is on 375, which is well ahead of that university’s ordinary Arts degree. At DIT, it’s on 410 points. At Trinity it’s on 460, and at UCD a joint degree with English is on 335, and IT Sligo the points are 280. That, of course, represents a wide spread of points, and all of those courses are very different from each other – but the key feature is that demand hasn’t changed much, and that some of the above Drama courses are among the most popular in the state.

So throughout Ireland we can be sure of at least 100 new undergraduates taking drama courses during the year ahead.

Sometimes people assume that this means that there are 100 people hoping to become actors – and while it’s true that some students start university with that ambition, many that I speak to have a wide range of motivations. In general, it seems well understood that a drama course will teach a student the skills of critical analysis and close reading that you’d expect from an Arts degree – but it also builds skills in creativity, team work, public speaking, improvisation, and so on. So a Drama graduate has a lot to offer, and not just to the world of theatre.

In four years’ time, then, we won’t see 100 more actors looking for work – but we will see a group of graduates who will end up doing many different things and who will – I hope – care about theatre, and will continue to support it and advocate for it throughout their adults lives.

One of the key things we want our First Year students to do is to see a lot of good theatre. For example, this year we’re bringing them to the Dublin Theatre Festival, where they can choose tickets from a list that includes Threepenny Opera, Neutral Hero, Taramandat, The Rape of Lucrece, The Critic, and more. They’ll also have access to shows in the Town Hall and at Baboro during the first semester. So by Christmas, they’ll already have seen a good selection of Irish and international works, including children’s theatre and dance. Overall then they’ll have been exposed to the idea that there are lots of different ways of making theatre, and lots of different ways of thinking about it too.

We also try to involve theatre practitioners in our courses. Many of the courses are taught by working practitioners like Andrew Flynn, Mary Elizabeth Burke Kennedy and Max Hafler, and we also have modules that are run by Macnas and Blue Raincoat, and we have a very strong partnership with Druid.

And throughout the island, there are similar relationships between theatre companies and theatre departments in universities and Institutes of Technology.

So there’s a strong symbiotic relationship between theatre training and theatre practice in Ireland – and indeed most of the practitioners I meet say that they are delighted to work with Irish universities because doing so helps them to develop the next generation of Irish theatre practitioners, and indeed the next generation of Irish theatre audiences as well.

I think there is one other way in which the arts and the university sector can work together, and that is in campaigning for the Arts. And by ‘the Arts’ I mean specifically the Arts degree.

One of the big stories from yesterday was that Arts has continued to decline in popularity, at least insofar as points are concerned. The suggestion seems to be that students are taking courses that are more likely to result in clear-cut employment opportunities. There has also been a swing towards Science, Engineering and Technology subjects – which is something that the government has strongly encouraged, and which I think everyone agrees is a very positive development.

I think the position is a bit more complex than is evident from the headlines however (and to be fair, most commentators show an awareness of this complexity too). The points for Arts courses are falling, but there are still more students doing Arts than any other subject: from a rough count I would estimate that at least 3,000 people will begin Arts courses next month.

I’m also not certain that students are rejecting Arts exclusively because of a fear of not finding work afterwards. We saw yesterday, for example, that journalism courses are thriving throughout the country, and in Galway our most popular courses include subjects like Drama, Creative Writing, Human Rights and Children’s Studies. Trinity College’s two-subject Arts degree seems to be doing as well as ever, and at UCC a new degree course in English has attracted students with very high points. So there is evidence that when students have the opportunity to choose specific pathways, they are happy to do arts degrees – and that very highly qualified students (people who could do other subjects, in other words) will choose those pathways.

The fear of not finding work after an Arts degree is widely felt, and perhaps understandable in the sense that there isn’t a direct and obvious career path from an arts degree into one specific job – as would be the case in, say, teacher training or Medicine. But Arts students can study subjects with a strong vocational element – areas like Psychology, Modern Languages, IT, Law, and Maths – while also doing the more traditional Arts subjects. I would imagine that a student who graduates with a  degree in English and French in three years’ time has as good a chance of finding a job in Ireland as does a person in one of the STEM courses that are attracting students with 500+ points.

In other words, the points for a course aren’t a real indicator of its easiness or difficulty, of how easy it is to find work afterwards, or much else.  As most Career Guidance teachers  that I meet  say to their students  – people tend to do best when they do what they are good at. I’d worry that students who could thrive in Arts are choosing subjects that are less well suited to them. In other words, I think people are in some cases avoiding Arts courses not because of any real flaw with that option, but because of other factors.

And I wonder if perhaps we in Ireland have been talking down the value of the Arts degree – and if that denigration is part of a wider pattern whereby the arts and creativity are being instrumentalised by governments throughout the West. After the financial crash in 2008, many government set about cutting the arts, describing them as an expensive luxury. Those cuts were slowed somewhat when theatre people and other practitioners made the economic case for the arts, showing how they develop tourism, attract Foreign Direct Investment, help to “brand” nations, and so on. The arts now are still undervalued, but I think there is a better understanding at governmental level that funding for the arts should be seen as an investment: that is, money put into the arts tends to generate a return more substantial that the original investment.

Likewise I think Arts at university level has come under attack due to similar thinking. The argument goes something like this: why should the government spend 10,000 euro a year on educating people in subjects that are (to use the phrase again) an expensive luxury?

A colleague in the UK made the point to me that in that country many of the people most opposed to funding Arts subjects at university are themselves Arts graduates – that is, politicians and journalists. She made the suggestion to me that such people may be basing their assumptions about today’s Arts students from their own time as Arts students. In other words, some of the prejudice against Arts degrees arises from a memory of how things were rather than an awareness of how things are.

I don’t know if the same is true in Ireland, but I do know that when the Arts community makes the case for the arts, they are fighting the same battle that we in universities have to fight for the Arts degree.

We are all trying to say that the arts produce many benefits that cannot necessarily be measured but which all civilised societies nevertheless recognise as being true and worthwhile. And we are also saying that the arts produce many benefits that can be measured in terms of economic impact. In a university context, an example of that is how a great majority of arts graduates will go on to secure good jobs in important sectors in our society: tourism, business, education, and indeed the arts – and indeed politics.

The fact that there are so many people looking to study theatre in our universities shows that groups like the National Campaign for the Arts are succeeding: many of our young people and their parents care about the arts, and believe that studying them can help them to secure a happy and prosperous future. But we also need to ensure that we do more to promote to people the value of the Arts degree, not just to the students themselves, but also to the broader society.

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